Cleveland Indians: Where should Oscar Mercado hit in 2020?

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 04: Oscar Mercado #35 of the Cleveland Indians hits an RBI single off Ivan Nova #46 of the Chicago White Sox during the fourth inning at Progressive Field on September 4, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 04: Oscar Mercado #35 of the Cleveland Indians hits an RBI single off Ivan Nova #46 of the Chicago White Sox during the fourth inning at Progressive Field on September 4, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images) /

Oscar Mercado was the Cleveland Indians’ primary two-hitter in 2019. Should he automatically break camp in the same role this season?

The Cleveland Indians have begun spring training in full force. Naturally, this annual milestone means it’s time to begin taking in-depth looks at individual players. Over the next few weeks, I’ll put out a series of discussions on the players that populate Cleveland’s roster, and how they fit into the bigger picture for 2020.

These will be open-ended case studies with a focus on highlighting whatever miscellaneous findings jump out at me during my research. Ultimately, the common thread will be trying to figure out how each player can best help the team win.

First up is Oscar Mercado, who comes into camp with the inside track to the starting center field job after playing well there in his rookie year. Defensively, Mercado should have no issues picking up where he left off in 2019. But should he be a lock to continue hitting near the top of Cleveland’s lineup on offense?

The fact that Mercado spent most of last season hitting second in the batting order creates the expectation that he’s poised to be one of the Tribe’s best offensive players in 2020. Maybe that happens, and it wouldn’t be especially surprising if it does, but 2019 isn’t a glaring indication that it will.

In 2019, 12 MLB players recorded at least 400 plate appearances out of the two-hole. Among them, Mercado ranked the lowest in walk rate (5.8%), on-base percentage (.316), wRC+ (93), and OPS (.756). All of the other 11 posted an OPS of at least .800 and a wRC+ above 100.

Ideally, a team’s two-hitter should be reliable in at least one of: creating runs by getting on base, or producing them via extra-base hits with runners in front of them. The best of them (Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Trevor Story, to name a few) excel in both categories.

Mercado struggled to do either one consistently. In other words, the 2019 version of Mercado was not your conventional two-hitter.

Terry Francona was hesitant to stack his three best hitters–Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana–directly on top of one another in the lineup. Even after acquiring two middle-of-the-order guys in Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes at the deadline, Francona still preferred staggering his best bats in order to lengthen the lineup.

This philosophy, along with the fact that a slumping Ramirez didn’t emerge from his cocoon until he’d been bumped down to the five-hole, necessitated a shuffle at the very top of the order. Due to a lack of definitively better options, at least among everyday players, Mercado moved up.

He laced enough singles and minimized strikeouts well enough that it wasn’t absolutely imperative that the Indians replace him down the stretch. And again, with the possible exception of Jordan Luplow against lefties, it’s not as though there were a wealth of other candidates.

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The decision to slot Mercado into the two-hole was made on the fly, mid-season, in response to a variety of factors that included injuries and an under-performing offense. Now, in spring training, the Indians have considerably more time to gauge how the lineup needs to look to start this year.

Cleveland may still prefer to avoid having Lindor, Ramirez, and Santana occupy the top three spots in the order, but there is at least one new option in town to break them up: Cesar Hernandez.

Hernandez is similar to Mercado in that he doesn’t hit for power or strike out a ton, but the major difference between the two is that Hernandez has a proven track record of getting on base. Prior to a relatively down 2019, Hernandez had reached base at a clip of at least .356 in each of his previous three seasons. Even his .333 mark last year bested Mercado’s.

Assuming his 6.7% walk rate in 2019–exactly half of his 13.4% mark in 2018, and well under his running average of 11.5% from 2016-18–was an outlier, Hernandez could be just the guy the Indians need to strengthen the top-third of the lineup.

As for where this would potentially leave Mercado, the most natural landing spot is the nine-hole. Other than Ramirez, Mercado provided the Indians with the most base-running value of any player in 2019.

Hitting Mercado ninth would give the Indians the luxury of weaponizing that speed and ability on the base paths to make something happen at the bottom of the order, while also keeping the highest on-base guys at the top.

Is anything discussed here meant to be interpreted as a declaration that Mercado is incapable of becoming a more productive hitter? Of course not.

If he didn’t step up in 2019 and offer the Indians some semblance of consistency in the outfield, they’d probably have gotten knocked out of the playoff hunt a lot earlier than the last weekend of the year. Last season’s most pleasant surprise could quite easily take a considerable step forward in 2020.

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As the roster stands at the beginning of spring training, however, the Indians have the ability to diverge from last year’s road. With Hernandez as the more proven player in terms of what a team actually needs at the top of its order, there’d be absolutely nothing wrong with moving Mercado to a less high-leverage spot.